This column in Attraction, by Amelia Blades Steward, visits the faces of those who have benefited from the generous and tireless work of the nonprofits on the Mid Shore or are one of the organizations giving back in unique ways to better our world. She has been a freelance writer in our community for over 20 years and offers a glimpse into the lives of residents on the Mid Shore whom she has met along the way.
WHCP Radio is expanding after eight years of service as a largely volunteer-operated low power station limited to 10 miles around Cambridge reaching 20,000 residents. The new WHCP-FM will jump from 71 watts of effective radiated power to 14,000 watts, reaching 193,000 residents from Talbot County to Wicomico County and along the Bay to Southern Maryland. The primary audience is the roughly 75,000 to 80,000 people on the Mid-Shore who live in Talbot and Dorchester counties and a little bit of Caroline County.
The station was founded and is managed by attorney-engineer Mike Starling, who served 25 years at NPR in Washington, retiring as Vice President, Chief Technology Officer. Mike, president and general manager at WHCP-FM, comments about the expansion, “The Eastern Shore has been called a radio news desert, local newspapers are under stress and decline nationwide, and worthy causes have to navigate an array of social media strategies to publicize their events, solicit volunteers, and attract financial support. Public affairs and news are central to our mission – and are critical to a functioning democracy. But infectiously charming music discovery programs fill the bulk of the broadcast schedule and set the stage for enjoying high-quality information and public affairs programs that are at the core of our mission.”
According to Mike, the new transmitter will serve to fill the “NPR Mid Shore signal reliability gap” where Washington, Baltimore, and Princess Anne National Public Radio (NPR) stations achieve some service, depending on daily atmospherics, but with localized content specific to those distant communities and more urbanized regions.
“This NPR signal gap left a bit of a news desert here and we thought that was an opportunity to draw people in and capture their hearts and minds with some great music programming and an obsessively local focus about the Mid Shore. As an NPR Member Station, WHCP FM will air such NPR flagship programs as “Morning Edition,” “All Things Considered,” and the Newscast Service,” Mike adds.
Although the station’s new location on the dial is 91.7 FM, it is keeping the homage to its call letters, WHCP, now known as WHCP FM, as its tagline, “We help Cambridge prosper,” has been revised to “We help the Chesapeake prosper,” reflecting the signal’s expanded reach along the Chesapeake Bay.
Mike shares that the station realized that most people are listening to the radio in their cars. Because of the low power of the original signal, the station faded out after people got outside of Cambridge.
“We knew that we had such great programs and such terrific hosts, and I frankly felt guilty that we couldn’t share them with a much bigger audience. We’d always said, I wonder if someday there’ll be an opportunity to apply for a new bigger signal,” he reflects.
“They only open those filing windows for new signals typically about once every 15 years or so. The last one was in 2007. So, we applied in 2021 in the November filing window and worked hard for it. There were 12 other applicants stretching from Waynesboro, Virginia, to Cape May, New Jersey. We made it to number one in the Delmarva pecking order and ultimately the FCC awarded us the construction permit on June 2, 2022, and there were no petitions to deny by the others. So, it was off to the races.”
Mike points to WHCP’s depth of programming as one of its key successes. At the top of his list is the station’s show, “Lady Spins the Blues,” hosted by Dr. Donna Flaggs.
“She truly has an encyclopedic knowledge and she’s just so passionate about the blues and her passion is infectious,” Mike shares.
Two other great programs Mike credits are “Indie City” and “Jazzmatazz” by Drew Sheckler. Indie City features new music across a wide variety of genres.
“Some people call it underground music. I think Drew spends most of his waking free hours, when he’s not with his grandchildren, poking around on iTunes and other places looking for new musicians. He’s got such an expansive knowledge and I consider him our most professional broadcaster when you listen to how he introduces music, summarizes it, and talks about it,” Mike adds.
Doug Schuetz, previously the engineer in charge of ABC’s “Good Morning America,” is another WHCP host who does “Boomer Tunes” in the afternoon. WCHP’s programming hosts are all volunteers. As the station joins NPR, the station will add paid staff members, including Sandy Brown, who will serve as Director of Development; Brian Shaw, Chief Engineer; Doug Shuetz, Program, and Operations Director; Shane Walker, Morning Host; and Ben Brunner, Afternoon Host.
Over the course of his career in broadcasting, Mike launched a few stations himself and after joining NPR as its senior engineer, he helped hundreds of NPR stations across the country with their technical issues. Because he also had a law license as well as a technical background, he served as NPR’s lead drafter on most of NPR’s technical filings at the FCC and guided the new technologies like HD Radio which improved radio’s services to the American listeners.
“It’s been a pleasure and a privilege to have the opportunity. You know, if you’re a lifetime broadcaster like I am, you get the opportunity to participate in turning up a whole new radio station maybe three or four times in your whole career. And so this is sort of my capstone project, and I’m just honored to be able to be in the position to try and help get it launched properly and continue the community service that we hope will endear us to the whole Mid-Shore,” Mike explains.
“Our local programming is a textbook example of great community radio. An aspect of this station that will be somewhat unique is that we’re both a community radio station as well as an NPR station. That’s kind of an interesting hybrid and there are not many in the country which have sort of the best of both locally produced programs as well as award-winning news programming from NPR.”
The station’s Radio Reading Service, which serves the sight impaired or print disabled on the Shore, will also have a much bigger reach. The service typically serves those with macular degeneration or who have been blind since birth, people who have lost limbs perhaps and can’t hold a book, or people that have serious dyslexia and can’t read.
The station ultimately hopes to add HD radio broadcasting in the future. Cambridge will continue to serve as the flagship studio thanks to donated equipment from supporters nationwide. The station hopes to eventually establish a complimentary Easton Bureau for daily newsgathering, public affairs, and program hosting in Talbot County.
WHCP has received the support and engagement of the community, volunteers, and staff and has received support from grant-making organizations, including the Mid-Shore Community Foundation, the Nathan Foundation, the Pauline F. and W. David Robbins Charitable Foundation, the Dock Street Foundation, and the Kerr Fund. The City of Cambridge endorsed Dorchester County’s pass-through request for a major $250,000 Community Legacy Grant that has been awarded by the Department of Housing and Community Development, with a match of $161,000 from Cross Street Partners, toward new digital studios at the Packing House (with a move-in target date of January 2024). Many local individuals and organizations have additionally generously supported the station’s expansion including Dick and Ellen Bodorff, Out of the Fire, Bill Ryan, Nancy and Greg Oliver, and many others.